Chart: Which foods are worst for the climate?

Not all calories are created equal when it comes to climate change.

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We need to eat less meat and dairy if we want to maintain a livable climate, journalist Michael Grunwald writes in his inaugural Eating the Earth column for Canary Media. And this chart makes clear why. 

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The cultivation of animal sources of protein like beef and cheese results in dramatically higher greenhouse gas emissions than that of plant protein sources like beans and nuts, as shown by these numbers from a Science study and Oxford’s Our World in Data project.

Ruminant animals such as cows and sheep are some of the biggest emitters, particularly of methane, a greenhouse gas produced by their digestive systems. This is a major problem for the climate. Methane is 80 times more potent as a global-warming gas than carbon dioxide over the first 20 years it is in the atmosphere, and it is responsible for roughly one-quarter of the climate warming we see today. 

Beef is by far the largest emitter, but foods like poultry and fish are still problematic. Farmed fish and chicken result in about seven times more greenhouse gases than beans and lentils, and about three times more than tofu. That means replacing beef with chicken is not the greatest idea.

We need to figure out how to dramatically reduce the climate impact of the global food system while at the same time ramping up food production by more than 50 percent in order to feed a world population expected to grow from 7.9 billion today to nearly 10 billion by 2050. If we don’t change our systems, global demand for meat and animal products is expected to almost double by 2050, which, in Grunwald’s words, would be a nightmare for the climate.” 

The good news is that we’re now seeing unprecedented investment and innovation in alternative proteins like the now-popular Impossible and Beyond Meat meatless offerings, as well as countless other creative endeavors to produce more food with less climate impact. Watch for monthly installments of our Eating the Earth column to learn about some of the most intriguing and unexpected solutions to our global food challenge.

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Maria Virginia Olano is editorial and research associate at Canary Media.